Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir


  The Princess of Wales supported Wycliffe too; he was a familiar figure in court circles, and Katherine Swynford must have known him. It is easy to imagine this intelligent woman joining in his stimulating conversations with her lover, and although of course there is no evidence that she ever did so, it is more than possible. We do not know enough about her to surmise that she was in sympathy with Wycliffe’s teachings, for in every known respect she was religiously orthodox. But maybe she was swayed by her lover on the doctor’s political opinions.

  In July 1374, John rode north to Tutbury to see his wife and children, then in early August he was at Leicester,40 perhaps with Katherine. But he was back in London by September 11 to commemorate the sixth anniversary of Duchess Blanche’s death, the first he was able to attend—for he had been abroad every previous year—and consequently the most splendid to date.

  The magnificent obit took place on September 12.41 On the evening beforehand, after Vespers in St. Paul’s, the duke entertained the clergy at a banquet in the cathedral that consisted entirely of sweet confections and included ginger confits, aniseed, cinnamon, a marble plate of expensive sugar bonbons, sweetmeats, and nuts, and seventeen gallons of wine in earthenware jugs.

  The anniversary itself began with a procession from the Savoy to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which had been rendered suitably somber with funereal black hangings brought from the Savoy. Around Blanche’s partially completed tomb there burned thirty- six new wax candles in place of those that had been lit there daily, and on the tomb stood eight metal bowls containing mortar lights. Further illumination came from the torches held by twenty-four poor men who had been given gowns and hoods in the blue and white Lancastrian livery colors and stood encircling the tomb. In the presence of the duke and his retinue, a senior canon, assisted by the massed cathedral clergy and choristers, celebrated high mass at the chantry altar. Afterward, the company returned to the Savoy for a further taste of the duke’s famous hospitality, and consumed roasted beef, lamb, goose, pork, pigeons, pullets, and salted fish, some cooked with costly spices, followed by fruit, bread, and wafers, the food washed down with sixty gallons of wine and eleven gallons of ale. The total expenses for the obit were £40 (£13,657).42

  In the years to come, Blanche’s anniversary would remain an important event in the Lancastrian calendar, but the duke was not always able to attend, and the ceremonies were rarely as lavish as this one, some only costing £10 (£3,877).

  Did Katherine Swynford grace the obit that took place in 1374? If the ducal children were present, she would have had a legitimate reason for being there, but there is no record of them attending; the names of only two of the guests are recorded.43 Furthermore, the pattern of John’s travels both before and after the anniversary suggests that his womenfolk and children were in the Midlands at the time, and it looks as if he made haste to rejoin Katherine afterward. For as soon as all was done, John rode north to Yorkshire, reaching his castle at Tickhill before September 22. By the following day he had moved south to his manor of Gringley in Nottinghamshire, and by September 25 he had traveled the thirty miles to Lincoln.44 As Ket-tlethorpe was on the way, it is more than likely that he spent the night of September 24 there with Katherine.45 On September 26, at Savenby, he ordered John de Stafford, his receiver in Lincoln, to pay a gift of 25 marks (£2,845) to Katherine “for services rendered.”46 This indicates that after John had ridden to London for the obit, she had traveled from Leicester to Ket-tlethorpe to await his coming, and rode forth with him when he left it. John had gone south to Stamford by September 29, and was back in residence at the Savoy from October to December.47

  On December 10 the duke appointed a trusted esquire, Thomas Burton, as governor to his heir, seven- year- old Henry,48 who was now too old to have a governess. The boy was given not only a tutor, but also a chaplain and a keeper of his wardrobe, and sent to live in the household of Lady Wake, his former mistress.49 By 1376, Henry had been assigned a “military master” to teach him the arts of war, and his sisters were given their own chamber and wardrobe, a household within a household, with Katherine Swynford in charge of it.

  At Christmas it would appear that Katherine was with John at Eltham, where he celebrated Yuletide and New Year with the King. 50 Since Alice Per-rers was presiding over the court as unofficial queen, Edward III could hardly have complained about the presence of his son’s mistress; in fact, he probably welcomed her, for he had known Katherine since her childhood, and his kindness to her at the time of her widowhood suggests that he liked her well. Her presence at court is indicated by a New Year gift from her lover: On January 1, 1375, “with my especial grace,” John granted her the lucrative wardship of the lands and heir of his late retainer, Sir Robert Deyn-court, “and the right of the marriage of the heir for Blanche her daughter,” 51his godchild. Sir Robert was possibly related to one of the duke’s retainers, John Deyncourt, Constable of Kenilworth Castle, 52 whom Katherine probably knew quite well.

  In fulfilling his obligations as her sponsor, the duke intended that Blanche Swynford, who at almost twelve was nearing marriageable age, should be wed to young Robert Deyncourt. On January 13 he gave orders to his steward, Oliver de Barton, to “carefully guard the heir till such time that Dame Katherine will send for him, when you will deliver him and the guard of the lands to her.”53 The wording of this warrant reveals John’s respect for Katherine and his confidence in her acting autonomously. There is, however, no record of the marriage taking place, nor is there any further reference to Blanche Swynford in contemporary sources, from which we might sadly conclude that she did not live to see her wedding day. Robert Deyncourt, however, survived to press in 1387-92 for the restitution of his lands.54

  On January 2, 1375, John rode to Hertford Castle to visit his wife, while Katherine presumably traveled home to Kettlethorpe. At Hertford, on his arrival, John issued an order to John de Stafford to pay Katherine one mark (£114), perhaps for a wager she had won over Christmas. On the same day, he granted her the more handsome sum of 50 marks (£4,709) per annum, possibly because she was pregnant again; this allowance was also to be paid by John de Stafford. 55

  John had returned to the Savoy by January 14, when he ordered de Stafford to send a tun (a large cask holding 252 gallons) of the best Gascon wine to “our very dear and well- beloved Dame Katherine de Swynford” at Kettlethorpe; “if none can be found, send a vat of the best wine from the Rhine that you can find.”56 This was a parting gift, for he was soon to go abroad again. Edward III had declared his readiness to make a truce with France, which was now a matter of necessity after Bayonne had fallen to the enemy; in February, John, who was to head the English embassy, was granted the diplomatic powers necessary to negotiate the truce, and by March 9 he was in Dover, ready to sail. John Wycliffe was in his retinue. The duke arrived in Bruges on March 24, and presided over the peace conference that lasted until June 27, when a one- year truce with the French was concluded. By July 15 he was back in England.57

  The summer of 1375 was very hot, with a severe drought. Katherine appears to have spent these months at Kenilworth, and it was probably at this time that she bore the duke a second son, for in August he ordered that two chariots of wood for fuel be delivered to Elyot, the midwife of Lincoln. Elsewhere in the Register Elyot is referred to as a midwife of Leicester, but this grant suggests that she had moved to Lincoln to attend Katherine Swynford in childbirth when necessary and was being suitably rewarded.

  John of Gaunt’s Register for 1375 has references to two other women connected with Katherine. The first was Agnes Bonsergeant, a widow, who was rewarded with a life pension of 5 marks (£486) for services she had performed as Katherine’s nurse;58 this was the lady appointed by Queen Philippa to look after her young ward. As Professor Goodman points out, it was usual for princes to award pensions to their own nurses or those of their wives but virtually unheard of for a royal duke to remember the nurse of his mistress in this way, and an unmistakable indication of how deeply John had
come to feel for Katherine and how important she was to him. It is also possible—with her pension being awarded at this time—that Agnes assisted at Katherine’s confinement.

  The Register also records an undated payment—perhaps in 1375—of 66s.8d (£942) to John, son of Hawise Maudelyn, “damoiselle of our very dear and beloved Dame Katherine de Swynford.” 59

  Another grant made by John may also have marked a birth, for on July 24 he ordered Oliver de Barton, his seneschal in Nottinghamshire, and Richard de Lancaster, park warden of his manors of Gringley and Wheatley in that county, to send to his “beloved Dame Katherine Swynford or her attorney, sixty oaks suitable for building from any of our parks thought convenient, and which, in your judgment, will best profit her for the improvement of her houses at Kettlethorpe.”60 From this and the 1372 grant of oaks, it is clear that Katherine’s program of improvements was well under way, and that John’s new gift was intended to further assist her in making the manor a residence fit for their children. Also during 1375 he arranged for her to be paid 100 marks (£9,419), to be delivered into her own hands;61 this was possibly provision for their two children.

  This pattern of gifts and grants had occurred before, probably in connection with the conception and birth of John Beaufort, and was to be repeated in the future. In 1375 it perhaps marked the advent of a second Beaufort. The evidence is not conclusive, but the repetition of this pattern on each of four occasions may well point to Katherine’s illicit pregnancies and the duke’s discreet arrangements for the maintenance of their expanding family.

  An undated warrant in John of Gaunt’s Register possibly belongs to the period July 23-September 26, 1375 (or perhaps 1377), and might have formed part of this provision. In it, in consideration of the good and agreeable service she had rendered to Duchess Blanche, John granted Katherine “all the tenements that we own in our honor of St. Botolph”—this being a manor on the east side of the River Witham in the thriving port of Boston, Lincolnshire, which had been part of the Honor of Richmond since the time of William the Conqueror. The tenements (which could have been lands, dwellings, rents, or commercial premises) granted to Katherine had formerly been held by Geoffrey de Sutton, doubtless a connection of the prominent Lincoln family. Katherine was to hold these tenements and the profits from them from the duke and his heirs for the term of her life. 62

  Boston was a flourishing port at this date, second only to London in prosperity, and boasting fifteen merchant guilds; the beautiful parish church of St. Botolph, with its famous squat tower, the “Boston Stump,” was rebuilt in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by mercantile wealth. In 1369, Edward III had established a staple for wool and leather in Boston, and trade with the Low Countries was booming. Much of the medieval town has long since disappeared, but although there are no records to show where Katherine’s properties were, there are clues. 63

  All that we know for certain is that her tenements lay in the parish of St. Botolph. In 1774, when its churchyard was extended, many old houses and shops were demolished. Hers may have been among them, but there is some evidence to suggest that she owned Gisors Hall, a substantial building that survived into the nineteenth century.

  In 1372, before he relinquished the earldom of Richmond, John of Gaunt had held a “messuage”—a house with land and outbuildings—in St. Botolph called “Gisorshall.”64 Gisors Hall, probably built around 1245, stood in a part of town that centuries later would become South Square, a spacious and desirable residential area backing onto the river; the hall occupied the northwest corner plot. In 1282 it had been held of the Honor of Richmond by John de Gisors, after whom it was named. He belonged to an important merchant family that traded in Boston and London; in 1245 a John de Gisors had been Mayor of London. In 1282, Gisors Hall was a capital messuage comprising buildings, gardens, and a yard, set in two acres of land—an ideal town residence.

  In 1810, when Gisors Hall was partly demolished and rebuilt as a granary, stone fabric from the old building was incorporated in the new. A drawing made of the granary in 1856 shows a double- gabled stone frontage with two medieval mullioned windows sporting ogee arches on the upper floor, with Victorian brickwork arches surmounting them. At ground level may be seen two double- arched doorways to allow access for carts bringing grain—a nineteenth- century feature—and an old Gothic doorway at one end.

  Katherine’s ownership of this property is suggested by the fact that in 1427, after the death of her son, Thomas Beaufort, it was recorded that he had had a messuage called “Gisours Hall” in Boston, with the customs and franchises thereto belonging, just as his father had had in 1372. 65Quite clearly, Gisors Hall was no longer a part of the Honor of Richmond in 1427, so possibly it had been alienated and sold to Geoffrey de Sutton in the 1370s, then repurchased by John of Gaunt, who granted it to Katherine Swynford, who in turn bequeathed it to Thomas Beaufort.

  Katherine’s familial connections with Boston were enduring. Between 1400 and 1404 her sons, Thomas and Henry Beaufort, were admitted to the fraternity of the town’s Corpus Christi Guild, of which Edward III, Philippa of Hainault, Duke Henry of Lancaster, the Black Prince, and Blanche of Lancaster had also been members. (There was also an associated guild dedicated to St. Katherine; did Katherine Swynford ever pay her respects to her name saint’s image in that guild’s chapel in St. Botolph’s Church?)

  In 1500 a substantial house called Spayne’s Place, in Boston, was recorded as being the property of Katherine’s great- granddaughter, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, the mother of Henry VII. In the fourteenth century the de Spayne family had been prominent merchants, guildsmen, and aldermen in the town, and Spain Lane is said to be named after them. However, there is no trace of Spayne’s Place there, although it could have stood in Spain’s Court, an opening on the south side; the ancient buildings that line the street were probably once the family’s warehouses.

  Given her connections with Boston, Katherine must have visited the town on several occasions and become acquainted with its leading burghers; she possibly had mercantile interests there, and might have known or visited Spayne’s Place, but there is no evidence that she owned it or that it descended from her to Margaret Beaufort. On the contrary, in 1487 it was one of the properties of the earldom of Richmond, once held by Margaret’s late husband, Edmund Tudor, that were granted to her by her son the King.66

  Interestingly, according to an Inquisition Postmortem of 1546, Margaret Beaufort also held Gisors Hall. Unless it was returned to the Honor of Richmond at some stage, it might well have passed to her by descent through the Beauforts; Thomas Beaufort left no children, so his eldest brother’s son, John Beaufort—Duke of Somerset, Margaret’s father—was his heir. In 1545, Spayne’s Place was sold by Henry VIII to the Corporation of Boston. How long it survived after that is not recorded.

  The son probably born to Katherine in the summer of 1375—and therefore conceived during the duke’s visit to Lincolnshire the previous September—was almost certainly Henry Beaufort, who was probably named after Henry, Duke of Lancaster. It has been suggested that Henry was the youngest of the children Katherine bore the duke: in 1398, in connection with being appointed Bishop of Lincoln, he was described as ad-modum puer—just a boy. But this was probably merely a derisory comment on his elevation to episcopal rank at the age of just twenty- three. The seventeenth- century genealogist, Francis Sandford, describes the arms of Henry Beaufort in Wanlip Church, Leicestershire, as having a crescent as a cadency mark, which in Sandford’s day indicated a second son.67 More tellingly, Henry is second in the list of the Beauforts in the Letters Patent legitimizing them in 1397.

  In August 1375, John was at Leicester 68 with Katherine, and it was probably at this time that William Ferour, the Mayor of Leicester, spent 16s. (£226) on a gift of wine for “the Lady Katherine Swynford, mistress of the Duke of Lancaster,” doubtless in the hope of securing her patronage; this payment is recorded in the civic records for the year 1375-76.69 This approach by th
e mayor is the first evidence that her position of influence with the duke was becoming public knowledge. It also shows that the mayor thought an appeal to Katherine would be more successful than one to Duchess Constance; to this extent, as Professor Goodman points out, she had usurped the duchess’s rightful place in Lancastrian affairs.70 Nevertheless, there is no evidence that she exploited or abused her influence. On the contrary, she seems to have avoided embroiling herself in politics and kept very much in the background. Although there are very few known instances of her exercising any powers of patronage, the Leicester records show that Katherine occasionally used her influence for the benefit of others, while there is evidence to suggest that if she did ask favors from the duke, it was usually for her own family members, such as her brother- in- law, Geoffrey Chaucer, and her sister Philippa. But she was no Alice Perrers, feathering her nest at the Crown’s expense: No chronicler ever accused her of such greed and rapacity, nor of the bribery and corruption that would bring Alice down.

  Certainly Katherine profited materially from her relationship with John of Gaunt, but never excessively. His recorded gifts to her demonstrate his generosity, his care for her welfare, and his desire to please her; they made her wealthy, but not ostentatiously so, and were hardly lavish compared to Alice Perrers’s ill- gotten gains. Nor did he abuse his political power or misappropriate public funds to indulge Katherine. In fact, she seems to have retained her autonomy as a widow and pursued her private financial and other interests when she was not with her lover, which was relatively often.

 
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